Kansas City, Mo., ended 2014 with fewer homicides than the city had seen in nearly 50 years.
But that good news doesn’t lessen the tragedy of a death such as Angel Hooper’s. The 6-year-old was gunned down in the parking lot of a gas station at 107th Street and Blue Ridge Boulevard in October, the first of four child victims of drive-by shootings in the metro in recent months.
Emotions run high when kids become innocent victims of violent crime, but the number of drive-by shootings in the metro has not risen.
“Angel Hooper, her father and the family were innocent,” says Alvin Brooks. He's been dealing with these issues for decades, first as a police officer and later as a city councilman. Now he heads the Board of Police Commissioners and the Ad Hoc Group Against Crime. “The shooter was not taking into consideration that if I shoot this gun, I might not just hit my target, but hit someone else in that case.”
Violence against children isn’t new – Brooks’ office at 31st and Prospect is lined with the faces of Kansas City’s young homicide victims on fliers pleading for information in unsolved cases dating back to the late ’90s. But the manner in which kids have been dying lately has gripped the metro.
Since Hooper's death, three more children have died in drive-by shootings: Machole Stewart, 10; Kahliff Hampton, 16; and Ja’Quail Mansaw, 7 months, all killed in their homes in Kansas City, Kan.
Police in both Kansas City, Mo., and Kansas City, Kan., say there’s no reason to believe the number of drive-by shootings is up, even though neither agency keeps stats on drive-by shootings. In fact, no one does. The Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., tried to, at least for a few years. But its most recent report was in 2010.
“It was really just collecting news clips by hand,” says Josh Sugarmannl, the Violence Policy Center's executive director.
Incident reports classify drive-by shootings as gun crimes. Kansas City, Kan., police investigate any time shots are fired into a residence, but police rely on occupants to report such crimes.
University of Missouri-Kansas City criminologist Andrew Fox estimates that 10 percent of all gun crime could be considered drive-by.
“When you are in a moving car, shooting at a moving target, and you’re likely pretty inexperienced with weapons, the likelihood that you’re going to hit someone who you weren’t aiming at goes up," says Fox. "Some of the research shows about 40 to 60 percent of the victims in drive-by shootings tend to be innocent victims.”
Fox says Kansas City isn't seeing an uptick in drive-by shootings, but rather an increase in the number of innocent victims.
Police say they're addressing the problem but would rather keep criminals guessing than share their strategies for bringing those numbers down.
“We’re not going to show all of our cards, so to speak,” says Sergeant Kari Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Kansas City, Mo., Police Department.
But some criminologists, such as Fox, argue police should show do just that, so the consequences of violent crime are less abstract. Fox works with the No Violence Alliance on the Missouri side of the metro, helping police build intricate webs showing the social networks of known criminals in an effort to better understand the beefs and alliances between those groups.
Police use the information to track all group members' criminal activity, even non-violent offenses that aren’t usually a top priority in high-crime areas. That includes "all the legal vulnerabilities someone has," Fox says.
"They might have back child support," he says. "Or receiving cable illegally. Parking their car illegally. Driving without a license. Violating their probation.”
When police are worried about violence escalating between rival groups, they put word out that they have dirt on everyone involved. They hope the tactic can prevent retaliatory shootings. It’s a strategy that’s worked in other cities, and one that civic leaders say is starting to work here.
Eric Wesson writes about crime for The Call, an African-American newspaper in Kansas City. He sees himself as an advocate for a community that doesn’t have a voice.
“They’re not represented politically. They have very little to no education. There’s very little to no resources in their communities,” says Wesson of crime victims in the urban core.
Wesson’s analysis of the problem is that perpetrators of violence just don’t care anymore.
“There used to be a kind of a street code if you saw someone with their kids, you would wait and go back if you had a beef with them ... you’d do it when their kids weren’t around,” says Wesson.
Back at the Ad Hoc office, Alvin Brooks makes another point – the perpetrators, in many of these cases, aren’t much older than the victims.
“I think the new civil rights movements ought to be – and especially for the African-American community — trying to reduce the violence," says Brooks. "Because the Ja’Quail Mansaws had a right to live. That’s a human rights issue. A right to live.”
The men suspected of shooting Hooper have been arrested, but police are still investigating the three Kansas drive-by shootings.